Pope Benedict XVI left Beirut, Lebanon, for Rome Sept. 16 after making a series of impassioned calls on the people of the Middle East to work towards peace and reconciliation, to be filled with Christian hope, and to strengthen unity and a sense of fraternity.
“I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity,” the Holy Father said on his final day at an open-air Mass on Beirut’s seafront.
“This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will.” The Pope added: “I appeal to all of you to be peacemakers wherever you find yourselves.”
The main purpose of his Sept. 14-16 apostolic voyage was to sign and deliver the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (The Church in the Middle East) — a summary of proposals and guidelines for the Church in the region, drawn from conclusions reached at the 2010 Synod on the Church in the Middle East. The exhortation, the Pope said on arrival in Beirut, “is intended as a road map for the years to come.”
Noting that the signing ceremony of the document Sept. 15 providentially took place on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Sept. 15, Benedict XVI stressed the “inseparable bond” of the cross and the Resurrection. He explained that to exalt the cross does not mean a fateful resignation to suffering and death but, against the backdrop of the Resurrection, to offer authentic Christian witness as “an act of hope.”
“In the light of today’s feast, and in view of a fruitful application of the exhortation, I urge all of you to fear not, to stand firm in truth and in purity of faith,” the Pope continued. “This is the language of the cross, exalted and glorious!”
The three-part document invites the Catholic Church in the Middle East to “revive communion” within the Church and to “open up” dialogue with Jews and Muslims.
“Benedict XVI solemnly asks, in the name of God, that political and religious authorities not only alleviate the suffering of all those who live in the Middle East, but also eliminate the causes of this suffering and do all in their power to enable peace to prevail,” the document says in its conclusion. A major concern of the local Church is the widespread emigration of Christians, caused by poverty, persecution, insecurity and corruption.
The Holy Father’s visit came at a particularly tense time in the region, with an ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria and violent unrest across the world, some say in reaction to an anti-Muslim video made by an American filmmaker. But the Pope was unfazed by the dangers, telling reporters on the papal plane that he never considered canceling because of security concerns.
“As the situation becomes more complicated, it is even more necessary to offer a sign of fraternal encouragement and solidarity,” he said. “Therefore, the aim of my visit is an invitation to dialogue, to peace and against violence, to go forward together to find solutions to the problems.”
In his speeches, the Pope did not specifically mention the protests erupting throughout the Arab world at the time of his visit. The violence, which included the murders of four U.S. officials by Islamist militants in Libya, coincided with the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
On the papal plane, he stressed that fundamentalism “is always a falsification of religion and goes against the meaning of religion,” which is to share God’s peace in the world. He added that the task of the Church and religions is to “undertake a purification of such temptations, to illuminate consciences and to try and provide everyone with a clear image of God.”
Regarding the clashes between the Syrian army and militia, he implored the international and Arab communities to “propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person.” He also called for the cessation of arms imports to the country and, in words to Syrian faithful who were present during his meeting with youth, assured them of his closeness.
“He [the Pope] does not forget Syria in his prayers and concerns; he does not forget those in the Middle East who are suffering,” Benedict XVI said. “It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together, so as to put an end to violence and war.”
Concerning the “Arab Spring” in general, the Holy Father told reporters on the papal plane that it has been a “positive thing,” in that it expresses a desire for liberty, but he warned that greater freedom also requires tolerance for one another and reconciliation.
In an address to civic, political and religious leaders at the presidential palace in Beirut Sept. 15, he raised the thorny Middle East issue of religious freedom, arguing that it “has a social and political dimension which is indispensable for peace.” He reminded those present that having broken the First Commandment to love God, evil then goes on to “distort” the second, love of neighbour, causing it to disappear and “yielding to falsehood, envy, hatred and death.”
The Holy Father also underlined the importance of solidarity, the family, dialogue and education for achieving peace. “If we want peace, let us defend life!” he exhorted. “This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life, on men and women as creatures willed by God.”
He added: “Wherever the truth of human nature is ignored or denied, it becomes impossible to respect that grammar, which is the natural law inscribed in the human heart.” He highlighted the need to unconditionally acknowledge the dignity of every human being and the sacredness of human life. “Without this, it is impossible to build true peace,” he said.
In an address to young people Sept. 15, Benedict XVI encouraged them to remain in their homelands rather than emigrate. He also warned them not to find solace from hardship through “parallel worlds” such as drugs and pornography. Social networks, he said, can be “interesting” but “quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual.”
Instead, he encouraged them to strive to heal divisions, to be peacemakers and “courageously resist everything opposed to life.” He also called on young Muslims present to build up the country together with Christians.
Indeed, the entire three-day visit provided an example of Christians and Muslims joining together in peace to celebrate the Pope’s visit, in stark contrast to the violent images that have dominated recent media coverage of the region.
“In these troubled times, the Arab world and indeed the entire world will have seen Christians and Muslims united in celebrating peace,” the Pope said on leaving, and he singled out the great warmth and affection of the Lebanese people that stirred within him a “wish to return.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi described the visit as “a great success” on both a spiritual and human level. The Pope did not provide “new words or new solutions, but this is not his duty,” he told Vatican Radio.
“He is Peter, who encourages us and reinforces the foundations of the faith for Christians. He has come to confirm all Catholics, all Christians, in their faith and in their hope — particularly in their hope.”
Many Lebanese commentators and politicians also spoke of a successful visit and acknowledged the importance of heeding and acting upon the recommendations of Ecclesia in Medio Oriente. “There is a need to commit to the apostolic exhortation in order for Lebanon to remain the country of dialogue and openness,” said Lebanon President Michel Suleiman.
Walid Jumblat, the most prominent leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, told Al-Anbaa magazine Sept. 17: “The Lebanese people are obligated to double their efforts in order to implement the apostolic exhortation in order to remove fears of a large number of Lebanese, especially Christians.”
During his visit, the Pope noted “the celebrated Lebanese equilibrium” in which 40% of its population is Christian.
This, he predicted, would “continue through the good will and commitment of all Lebanese” and serve as a model for all people. But he noted it is also a gift of God, which “should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs and consolidated with determination.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.